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What is Acrolein Used For?

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

Acrolein is the simplest unsaturated aldehyde and can be very toxic. However, it has many uses, so it continues to be produced. In this lesson we will learn about some of those uses.

Acrolein Safety

There are many reasons that smoking leads to lung cancer, but one hypothesis points to the acrolein in the cigarettes. We do not know for sure if acrolein is a cancerous substance, but, if nothing else, we know it is not a very pleasant substance since it was used in the chemical weapons during World War I to cause choking and severe irritation.

Acrolein is the simplest unsaturated aldehyde and is highly flammable, very reactive, is fatal when swallowed, and causes burns to skin and eyes.

One particularly dangerous source of acrolein is in fires. Acrolein is given off when oils are burned (it is actually what you are smelling when you smell burned oil). Since it can be highly toxic, fire fighters can be exposed to large amounts of acrolein when fighting oil fires.

Acrolein is the simplest unsaturated aldehyde
Acrolein structure

So, if it isn't a very nice substance, why do we even produce it? There are several beneficial uses of acrolein, it just needs to be used with care and safety. In fact, one plus side to its toxic smell is that it is used as a warning system in some refrigerants to let us know if something is leaking.

Intermediates

The most common use of acrolein is as a precursor for acrylic acid. Acrylic acid is used to form polymers, which is used in making plastics, paints, polishers, and adhesives. These substances can also form a very absorbent material called superabsorbent polymers or SAPs, used in diapers and in the padding underneath the meat you buy at the store.

It may seem interesting that something so dangerous is used to make something that we'd expect to be really safe: baby diapers and food packaging. Just remember that it is no longer acrolein that is being used, it's acrylic acid and other esters that have been formed into polymers. So they are much safer now.

Other uses

Acrolein is also used as a pesticide and microbiocide. Algae or weeds can clog the path of water for irrigation ditches, so acrolein is often used to clean them out and prevent further growth.

Algae in irrigation ditches makes it difficult for farmers to properly use the water, acrolein can be used to prevent the algae from growing
Irrigation ditch and algae

Oil companies will also frequently use acrolein to control bacteria growth. Microbes can cause corrosion, damage equipment, and produce hydrogen sulfide. Acrolein will attack the microbe's to metabolize, thus killing them.

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